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Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth

Characteristics of Underage Drinking

Excerpts from The Surgeon General's Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking

All text in this fact sheet is excerpted directly from The Surgeon General's Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, a 2007 report from the Office of the Surgeon General (emphases added).

Adolescence is a time of heightened risk taking, independence seeking, and experimentation, although the extent of these behaviors varies widely among individuals [emphasis added]. It is "a period when an appetite for adventure, a predilection for risks, desire for excitement, and inclination toward passionate action, seem to reach naturally high levels"1(Surgeon General's Call to Action, pages 16-17)

During this period, alcohol can present a special allure to some adolescents for social, genetic, psychological, and cultural reasons. This attraction occurs at the very time adolescents may not be fully prepared to anticipate all the effects of drinking alcohol and when they are more vulnerable to certain of its adverse consequences [emphasis added]. Further, alcohol has been shown to impair one's ability to evaluate risk and reward when making decisions2 (Call to Action, page 17).

Underage Alcohol Use Increases With Age. As Figure 1 indicates, alcohol use is an age-related phenomenon. The percentage of the population who have had at least one whole drink . . . rises steeply during adolescence until it plateaus at about age 21. By age 15, approximately 50 percent of boys and girls have had a whole drink of alcohol; by age 21, approximately 90 percent have done so (Call to Action, page 3).

Percentage of Americans who have ever drunk alcohol.

(Call to Action, page 3)

Alcohol Is the Most Widely Used Substance of Abuse Among America's Youth. As indicated in Figure 3, a higher percentage of youth in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades used alcohol in the month prior to being surveyed than used tobacco or marijuana, the illicit drug most commonly used by adolescents3 (Call to Action, page 5).

figure 2

(Call to Action, page 5)

Adolescents Drink Less Frequently Than Adults, But When They Do Drink, They Drink More Heavily Than Adults. When youth between the ages of 12 and 20 consume alcohol, they drink on average about five drinks per occasion about six times a month, as indicated in Figure 4. This amount of alcohol puts an adolescent drinker in the binge range, which, depending on the study, is defined as "five or more drinks on one occasion" or "five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks in a row for women." By comparison, adult drinkers age 26 and older consume on average two to three drinks per occasion about nine times a month4 (Call to Action, pages 6-7).

figure 3
(Call to Action, page 6)

Differences in Underage Alcohol Use Exist Between the Sexes and Among Racial and Ethnic Groups. Despite differences between the sexes and among racial and ethnic groups, overall rates of drinking among most populations of adolescents are high. In multiple surveys, underage males generally report more alcohol use during the past month than underage females (Call to Action, pages 7-8).

figure 5
(Call to Action, page 7)

figure 6
(Call to Action, page 8)

Binge Drinking by Teens Is Not Limited to the United States. As shown in Figure 7, in many European countries a significant proportion of young people ages 15-16 report binge drinking. In all of the countries listed, the minimum legal drinking age is lower than in the United States. These data call into question the suggestion that having a lower minimum legal drinking age, as they do in many European countries, results in less problem drinking by adolescents (Call to Action, page 9).

figure 7
(Call to Action, page 9)


Notes

  1. R. Dahl and A. Hariri, "Frontiers of Research on Adolescent Decision Making" Contributions from the Biological, Behavioral, and Social Sciences," Background paper prepared for the Planning Meeting on Adolescent Decision Making and Positive Youth Development: Applying Research to Youth Programs and Prevention Strategies, April 2004, National Research Council/Institute of Medicine Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Committee on Adolescent Health and Development.
  2. S. George, R. D. Rogers and T. Duka, "The acute effect of alcohol on decision making in social drinkers," Psychopharmacology182 (2005):160169.
  3. L. D. Johnston, P. M. O'Malley, J. G. Bachman, et al, (December 21, 2006) "Teen Drug Use Continues Down in 2006, Particularly Among Older Teens; but Use of Prescription-Type Drugs Remains High," (University of Michigan News and Information Services: Ann Arbor, MI 2006). Available online at: www.monitoringthefuture.org. Accessed 01/02/2007.
  4. Ibid.
  5. V. B. Faden, "Trends in initiation of alcohol use in the United States 1975 to 2003," Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research30 (2006):1011-1022.
  6. L. D. Johnston, P. M. O'Malley, J. G. Bachman, et al, (December 21, 2006) "Teen Drug Use Continues Down in 2006, Particularly Among Older Teens; but Use of Prescription-Type Drugs Remains High," (University of Michigan News and Information Services: Ann Arbor, MI 2006). Available online at: www.monitoringthefuture.org. Accessed 01/02/2007.
  7. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Results From the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, NSDUH Series H-30, DHHS Pub. No. SMA 06-4194 (Rockville, MD: SAMHSA, Office of Applied Studies, 2006).